DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.
When wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in 2006 following an investigation into his sexual activities with teenage girls, the case ended in a shockingly lenient plea bargain. He pled guilty to soliciting prostitution and served 13 months in a county jail before resuming his jet-setting lifestyle. His rearrest in 2019 on federal sex trafficking charges was largely the result of a hard-hitting investigative series in the Miami Herald, which relied on a wealth of documentary evidence and the firsthand accounts of women who said they were repeatedly abused as adolescents by Epstein in his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion. They also said they were paid to recruit other teenage girls for him to exploit.
Our guest today is the author of that series, Julie K. Brown. She has a new book about the Epstein case and her two-year investigation that effectively shamed federal authorities into reopening the probe. Epstein died in a Manhattan jail cell in August of 2019 in what was ruled a suicide. Julie K. Brown’s reporting on the Epstein case won a George Polk Award, among other honors. She’s still an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald. I should note that Julie Brown and I know each other. We worked together at the Philadelphia Daily News years ago, where she was a reporter and editor. Her new book is “Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.”
Julie K. Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JULIE K BROWN: Thanks for having me, Dave.
DAVIES: We now know a lot about what Jeffrey Epstein was up to his house in Palm Beach, this mansion. And I think it’s important for us to go into this a bit without being excessively graphic or dwelling on it excessively. We need to know how serious this conduct was. Just give us a sense of what these teenage girls experienced.
BROWN: Well, I think that one of the successes of the series and the stories that I laid out was that I avoided being graphic. I didn’t think we needed to be graphic in the story. I thought that the telling their stories about what happened to them and how they felt about the way that their criminal case was handled by authorities was something that was undercovered and really hadn’t been looked at. So in this book, I lay out more about the scope and the breadth of the story so that readers can see the patterns in the whole picture of how Epstein’s web of enablers, you know, helped him. He didn’t do this alone. He had a whole ecosystem that he created that allowed this to happen.
DAVIES: But just – I think we need to understand the seriousness of what he did. And so to that end, I mean, girls would typically be told – they would hear from a friend, hey, there – you can make a couple of hundred dollars giving this rich guy a massage, right? And then, generally speaking, what would happen?
BROWN: Well, you know, they were lured by people that they thought they could trust, friends of theirs mainly, or friends of friends. And they ultimately – some of them were told a little bit about what might happen, but a majority of them really didn’t know that when they got there, they were going to be taken into this room, a dark room, and there would be a man laying there on a table with just a towel covering them. And they thought they were just going to give him a massage and that would be the end of it. But, of course, he took advantage of them and molested them and then kind of threw money at them and said, leave your phone number, and, you know, if you want to come back, fine, but if you don’t want to come back and you still want to earn money, you can bring somebody else, and I’ll pay you to bring people. And that was sort of the pyramid scheme that he created.
DAVIES: Right. He would pay people to recruit others. So sometimes a way out of getting through this stuff he wanted you to do, the sexual abuse, you could find others and bring them to him. And he wanted them young, right?
BROWN: That’s correct. He had enough money to get the finest prostitutes that he wanted, but he didn’t want that. He wanted scared young girls. It was – that was part of his fantasy. So it just grew from that. And unfortunately, there were probably hundreds of girls that were victimized by him.
DAVIES: The scale of it is pretty shocking. I mean, this wasn’t a once-a-month adventure for him, right?
BROWN: No, it was two to three times a day. I mean, it was like a revolving door. And, you know, the more girls that he had, the more girls he wanted to recruit because he also wanted new girls all the time. You know, he wanted fresh young girls all the time. So it wasn’t just enough for him to have, like, three that he took advantage of all the time. He wanted a continuing parade of young girls.
DAVIES: Eventually he was investigated for these acts. And what’s interesting about this case is that in cases involving rich and powerful and politically connected men, as Epstein was – he made political contributions in addition to being very wealthy – you kind of typically often don’t trust local authorities to play it straight because they can be corrupted. That’s sort of a, you know, a typical theme in a lot of these stories. And you rely on federal authorities who, you know, have come from farther away and have more integrity to really do the job right. That’s not the case here, is it? The Palm Beach police really went after this.
BROWN: They did. I mean, half of that is that the police did do their job, but, of course, the local prosecutor didn’t. The police kept hitting a wall when they tried to present this to the state prosecutor, who was based in Palm Beach County, where these crimes happened. Initially, the prosecutor didn’t know who Jeffrey Epstein was. And not knowing him, they – he told the police officers, the detective, look; we’re going to go after this guy; we’re going to nail him, you know, et cetera. Go for it. And then as he realized how connected Epstein was, he started providing excuses to the police about why they couldn’t get this certain subpoena or – you know, they were slow-walking the case, and the police started really pushing hard but getting nowhere.
DAVIES: Right. There was one police detective, Joe Recarey, that you describe. Got a phone call from a mom who’d heard something about her stepdaughter having been involved in this. How hard or easy was it for him to gather evidence?
BROWN: Well, he did a very good job. I was fortunate enough to have a lengthy interview with him. He passed away in the middle of this investigation that I was doing, unfortunately. But he was very dedicated. He had been a highly decorated police officer with Palm Beach, had done some – you know, Palm Beach has had its other share of high-profile cases. You know, the Kennedy rape case was there, and they’ve had a number of other cases, this small police department that is based on the island of Palm Beach. But he nevertheless treated it like it was any other person. You know, Joe was sort of the salt in the earth, New York-born police officer who really didn’t – it didn’t – he didn’t care who Jeffrey Epstein was.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Julie K. Brown. Her new book is “Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown. It was her investigation into the sex trafficking crimes of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein that compelled federal authorities to reopen his case, which had ended with a lenient plea deal in 2008. She tells the story in a new book called “Perversion Of Justice.”
We were talking about how the Palm Beach Police Department had fairly thoroughly investigated Epstein’s crimes before the lenient plea deal. But this had all kind of died down. And then in 2017, you decide this deserves another close look. Why?
BROWN: Well, I knew that sex trafficking was a huge problem in Florida. And I thought that I wanted to do an investigative story on sex trafficking in general. And every time I Googled sex trafficking in Florida, quite frankly, another Jeffrey Epstein story came up because this was covered over the years by a number of – especially the local newspaper, the Palm Beach Post. But I – none of the stories that I read seemed to answer exactly how he got away with what he got away with. It was clear that as the years went by that this was a larger crime than had been initially investigated. So I thought that, perhaps, I should take a new look at it. And right around the time that I was sort of looking at the stories, Donald Trump nominated Alex Acosta to be labor secretary. And I was aware that Acosta was the former Miami prosecutor who, basically, approved this lenient plea deal with Jeffrey Epstein. So I think it was timely, No. 1. It was a horrendous miscarriage of justice, No. 2. And No. 3, it seemed like everybody had sort of forgotten about it.
DAVIES: Right. Right. And we should – Acosta was the federal prosecutor, the U.S. attorney there, who had approved this deal. Now, you knew you wanted to track down the victims, the people that – the women that Jeffrey Epstein had abused. And, you know, it had been 10 years or more for – in some cases. And you eventually identified 80, I read in your report. You know, finding them is one thing, getting them to talk is another. I mean, particularly people who had very little reason to trust that, you know, authorities or journalists were going to help them with a terrible crisis in their lives. You had to build trust. How did you approach getting them to talk to you?
BROWN: Well, I did some homework on it ahead of time because I was very concerned that I would re-traumatize them, because you’re bringing up a part – the worst time – among the worst time of their lives. And you’re asking them to talk about something they, of course, had probably put aside, hopefully, and had buried. And in some cases, they were now married. Or they had, you know, careers. And, you know, the people closest to them probably didn’t even know that this happened. So I did some homework. I interviewed a number of psychologists and even an FBI expert who deals with child abuse crimes. So that helped. I also pitched it to them. I wrote them letters. And I thought that – I feel like I’m a much better writer than I am a speaker, as you can probably tell form this interview.
DAVIES: (Laughter) I wouldn’t say that.
BROWN: (Laughter) But, you know, it’s easier to compose words on a letter. And I – you know, I wrote them a letter. And I said, this is what I want to do. I know that this story had been covered in the past. But it hasn’t had your voice. I mean, that’s the one thing that I found that was missing in this story, that none of the women’s voices were in any of the stories that I read. And I said, that’s what this story is missing. And I think it’s really important that you tell your story and explain to people how this happened. How did he slip through the cracks?
DAVIES: Right. And you got a lot of people to talk to you. Four of them gave video interviews. You had a partner in this, Emily Michot, who is a visual journalist who documented a lot of these. And people who are interested can find all of this on the Miami Herald website. One of the first people that you got to talk to was Michelle Licata. You want to just tell us a bit about her and her experience?
BROWN: Well, Michelle, you know, she sort of was in the same category as a lot of the victims here, where she came from a family that – she had a lot of brothers and sisters. Both of her parents worked very hard, long hours. So she was left – you know, they were left alone. I was – by the way, when I was young, I mean, my mom worked. And I was home. And, you know, you can get into a lot of trouble when you’re home alone. And, you know, you hope you never get in really serious trouble. But she got invited to go to Jeffrey Epstein’s house on the premise that she was going to earn some money just to give him a massage.
And at the time, she was hoping to buy Christmas gifts for her family. She didn’t have any money. And she thought, oh, I’ll just go give this – she had a friend who said that she had done the same thing and had gotten paid $200. So she thought, yeah, I can go do this. She also, coincidentally, had a friend whose mother was a massage therapist. So in her mind, she was already visualizing what it was because she had gone to the spa. And she knows, you know, what a real massage was. But to her horror when she arrived there – she thought she was going to some massage spa place to do this massage. And she goes to this mansion. And, you know, she goes up to this guy’s bedroom. And she suddenly realized, wait a minute, this was not what I thought was going to happen.
And, you know, shortly thereafter, he did his – you know, he didn’t just attack these girls. He sort of starts talking to them, tells them how beautiful they are. Do you have a boyfriend? And in the course of doing that, he starts touching them. And so it’s this weird thing. And I know a couple of the victims, Michelle included – you look around, there is nobody there, OK? You don’t really know where you are. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So what do you do? Do you run screaming? Or do you just freeze? And a lot of these girls were so scared because they were in a room alone with a man they didn’t know. And their friend wasn’t there anymore. They weren’t really sure where they were. So they just froze and sort of, you know, in shock at what was happening to them.
DAVIES: Yeah. Michelle Licata, I believe, was a straight-A student and a cheerleader before this. I mean, she thought she was going to earn money to buy her family Christmas presents. What did it do to her emotionally?
BROWN: She unraveled pretty quickly after this happened. She only went one time, by the way. You know, there were other girls who returned because they needed the money. But she unraveled. She went from being, you know, a straight-A student and doing well in school and, as she describes it, sort of a goody-two-shoes to all of a sudden, she was in so much mental anguish over what had happened. In her mind, it was almost what a rape victim would go through. Like, she felt shameful. She felt dirty. She felt like nobody would ever want to touch her again. She didn’t want her brothers to find out because she felt they would look at her differently. And she just really had almost a mental breakdown. And eventually, she started medicating herself with drugs and drinking and, you know, just fell into this downward spiral for – that lasted many, many years before she finally managed to pull herself out of it.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to play a bit of tape from the video that accompanied your story. And this is three of the survivors talking about kind of the long-term impacts on them and their self-image. Let’s just listen to this.
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COURTNEY WILD: I went to him steadily from 14, 15, 16. I held so much guilt, shame. Twenty-five is when I got into the hard drugs. I landed myself in prison for three years. It’s just, like, this unbearable hurt and pain that I was just trying to medicate, that I just didn’t want to feel. I didn’t want to live at all unless if I was impaired.
JENA-LISA JONES: Something that felt so stupid back then – I thought I had no relevance and that if I told anybody, they’d be like, you’re a whore. You wanted money. Why would you do that?
VIRGINIA GIUFFRE: To me, still, to this day, it is my biggest shame that I carry around that I will never get rid of. Ghislaine brought me in. I brought other girls in. Those girls brought other girls in. Jeffrey constantly had young teenagers coming through his door for one purpose and one purpose alone. I’m really, really sad that I brought other girls my age and even younger into a world that they should have never been introduced to.
DAVIES: So that was Courtney Wild, Jena-Lisa Jones and Virginia Giuffre, three of the women who spoke to our guest, Julie K. Brown, for her series in the Miami Herald about Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes. It must have been hard to hear these women now, 10 years later, still feeling such pain from this.
BROWN: You know, that audio – I feel a little, you know, choked up a little bit because that audio really just – it says and it is what made this series so powerful. There is nothing that was more powerful than the words of the women talking about this themselves. And I still kind of get choked up when I think about how brave they were to do this because as you can hear from their voices, this was not easy. They went through hell. And the fact that they shared all this with Emily and I is – you know, was very courageous. They really were heroes. I mean, it was really them that are responsible for Epstein, you know, finally being arrested.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned in passing in the book that you didn’t have the easiest time as a teenager, that at 16, you left home and became a self-emancipated minor. I don’t know how much you might want to tell us about that. But I’m wondering whether your experience, you think, gave you an empathy that these women connected with as you talked with them.
BROWN: Well, you know, I understood how – because I’d been on my own from a very young age, I understood how just one wrong decision, you know, could affect the rest of your life, you know? I fortunately had the right people around me, friends that helped guide me. But I was keenly aware that if I had just gone down this path or, you know, done this one thing, it could have affected my life in a very negative way. So I did have a lot of empathy for them. I did understand coming from a home where your parents – you know, I was the – I had a single mother. And she worked two and three jobs sometime. I spent a lot of time alone. Fortunately for me, you know, I made the right choices. But I was very much aware of how easy it is to fall down a hole, really. And so I didn’t – you know, there are people that would say, well, why did they come back? I understood why they went back. I did. And I’m sure that maybe other people, you know, even to this day, don’t understand that.
DAVIES: When you say why they went back, you mean why they went back to Epstein after having these awful experiences?
BROWN: Yeah. They – many of them came to depend on him. He – essentially, he really groomed them to believe that he was going to pull them out of the misery of their lives. Many of them had very difficult – some of them were in foster homes. Their parents were on drugs. You know, there were all kinds of circumstances that they came from. But the thread was that they really didn’t have a strong family life at home. And he knew that. He studied them. You know, he asked them questions about their life. So he found out exactly what their – you know, their Achilles heel or their vulnerabilities were. And he would say to them, look; you want to study this, you want to be a model. I’m going to help you be a model. And then they look on the walls of his home. And he has pictures with Bill Clinton and, you know, all kinds of famous, powerful people. And they really believed that he was going to help them. So, you know, I think that they thought, OK, I can do this one more time, you know? And they came to depend on him. They didn’t have family life at home, a strong anchor in their own lives. And he became an anchor for them.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We’re going to take another break here. We’re speaking with Julie K. Brown. She’s an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. Her book is “Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.” She’ll be back to talk more after this short break. I’m Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest is Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown. In 2018 she published the results of her two-year investigation into the alleged sex trafficking crimes of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. Her series spurred federal authorities to reopen the case that had ended with a lenient plea deal in 2006. After Julie K. Brown’s series emerged, he was charged with a host of federal offenses. Epstein died in a Manhattan jail cell in 2019. That death was ruled a suicide. Julie K. Brown’s new book is “Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.”
We were talking about your conversations with those who survived his abuses and that that was an important part of the story. Another really important part was what happened in the criminal justice system, why it didn’t serve them and didn’t bring him to account for his crimes. Jeffrey Epstein assembled a team of experienced, high-priced and aggressive lawyers. Let’s talk about how they fought this investigation. One thing they did was hire investigators to look into the various parties. What did they do?
BROWN: Well, they really hired relentless investigators who not only followed these girls, you know, and tried to talk to them when they were working, you know, waitressing or working at a bagel shop. They would show up. They began to, you know, pursue them and their families, by the way, looking to every part of every dark corner of their lives that they could find to try to, you know, basically intimidate them into cooperating with the police.
And what’s really maddening about this is that the authorities knew that Epstein was doing this. They knew that he was sending people to intimidate not only the girls but their families. And they didn’t do anything about it. I mean, they didn’t try to threaten them with, we’re going to, you know, charge you with interfering with a police investigation – nothing like that. It just seemed like they turned, you know, the other way and didn’t do anything about that.
And that progressed into them – these investigators also following the lead detective, you know, going through his trash, the police chief’s entire past. I think one of his teachers from grade schools mentioned to his brother that someone had called and was inquiring about him. So these investigators that Epstein essentially hired via his lawyers were ruthless and relentless in their pursuit of, you know, making sure that the girls and authorities knew that he was – you know, that he wasn’t going to be prosecuted for these crimes.
DAVIES: All right. So you looked carefully into how this lenient plea deal occurred. And this was a long period of time because there was not just the local prosecutor. The FBI became involved, the – you know, the U.S. attorney’s office, the federal prosecutors and this large team of experienced and aggressive lawyers on Epstein’s behalf. One of the ways that you got information was that in between the settlement in 2008 and the time you started looking into it, there was civil litigation, and a lot of the victims sued Epstein. That gave you some insight into exactly how the negotiations over this plea deal occurred, right? What did you find out?
BROWN: Well, there was still an open case, oddly enough, that had been open since 2008. So that meant that this civil case was open for 10 years, and it was still being litigated. And what was interesting about this case – this case was not filed against Jeffrey Epstein. It was filed against the U.S. government. And it was filed by an attorney by the name of Brad Edwards, who was representing one of the victims I ultimately interviewed, Courtney Wild, who essentially was suing the government for doing this plea deal in the first place.
They claimed that it was illegally done because it violated the Crime Victims Rights Act, which gives victims – it’s federal law which gives victims certain rights. And among those rights with the right to be consulted and to be informed about plea deals. And, of course, this was done – the plea deal was done in secret. They went to great lengths to seal it so that nobody could see it. And so Edwards filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government alleging that this deal was illegal because it violated the Crime Victims Rights Act.
DAVIES: Right. And so as a result of that, he got a hold of communications among the prosecutors, emails between them and the defense attorneys. And a lot of this you eventually got to look at. What were some of the most disturbing things that you learned about the way this went down?
BROWN: I think probably the most disturbing was that they continued. After the deal was already done, Epstein went right to jail. And I think what was really disturbing about it was that even after this happened, the federal government, the prosecutors continued in a way to work with Epstein against Brad Edwards, the attorney representing the victims, and trying to make all these legal arguments – that, No. 1, these weren’t really victims. They shouldn’t have been categorized as such because they never actually brought charges against him. So they were trying to use all kinds of legal loopholes in order to justify what they did. And to me, that was pretty startling to see that sort of Epstein and the prosecutors were on one side and the – you know, the victims and their attorney were on the other side.
DAVIES: When Epstein’s team of lawyers were working on this case, one of the things I gather they did was to argue that the victims here weren’t really victims. What were they arguing – this was consensual, that they were 14-year-old prostitutes? What was the argument?
BROWN: Well, yes, that’s exactly what they were arguing – that this was consensual, that they were prostitutes. And at the time that this case happened, quite frankly, there was still law on the books in Florida of, you know, the fact that child prostitution was illegal, you know, not on the part of the the pimps but the girls that were involved and the boys, really, that were involved. What they were doing was illegal. So part of the thing that the prosecutors used to excuse the fact that they weren’t going after the case was they would tell the girls, look. You understand that what you did was illegal.
And in a way, they sabotaged their own case because they made the victims feel like they could get in trouble. They didn’t want to cooperate as much as they would had they had prosecutors who understood that there was really – there – despite what the books said about child prostitution, there really is no such thing as child prostitution. But at the time this happened, they were mindful of the fact that this law was still on the books, and it was possible that these girls themselves could be in criminal jeopardy.
DAVIES: Right. If you’re reporting something, you think you’re going to get somebody punished for what they’ve done to you. And you are told, hey, do you realize you’re a criminal?
BROWN: You know, a number of the victims told me that. They said that they – when I was questioned not by the Palm Beach police – they weren’t in this category – but by prosecutors and the FBI agents, they said that – they said, look, I almost felt like I had done something wrong. And they were very scared because at the same time this was happening where the FBI was making them feel like they perhaps had broken the law, you have Epstein and his investigators and his lawyers on the other side digging into their lives and following their parents. And in one case, they ran a – one of the parents off the road. You know, so this was a very scary thing. It isn’t the kind of thing that would make a victim want to cooperate with authorities. And that all played into what – exactly what Epstein wanted.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Julie K. Brown. She’s a reporter for the Miami Herald. Her new book is “Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown. It was her investigation into the sex trafficking crimes of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein that compelled federal authorities to reopen that case which had ended in 2008 with a lenient plea deal. Julie K. Brown tells the story in a new book called “Perversion Of Justice.”
So this settlement occurs. When it’s ratified in court, the judge that would normally have been on the case is replaced with a temporary judge; not exactly clear how – why that occurred. None of the victims or their attorneys are noticed that the plea is going to be ratified in court. It’s sealed. Its terms are not public. What actually happens to Epstein as the result of this?
BROWN: Well as a – he kind of flies under the radar and that – normally someone who is convicted of any kind of sex crime like this would have gone to a state prison, in fact, Florida State Prison, which – Florida prisons are extremely violent and abusive. And he would have – as a sex – you know, a predator of children, he would have probably not survived very long, quite frankly, in the state system. Instead, he got sent to the local jail where he was further able to manipulate people through his contacts, enable him to get a work early work release, essentially not spend a whole lot of time in the jail itself. And he had a special security detail. He had a liberal ability to drive to his home if he wanted to. It was pretty outrageous the kind of privileges that he was able to get as a convicted sex offender.
DAVIES: Right. He got – and he had a television in his cell – right? – and access to a computer when he was in the jail. Is that right? Do I have this right?
BROWN: That’s correct. That’s correct. He was even allowed to leave his door – his jail cell door open. He slept naked. One of the guards had filed a complaint that he came out in the middle of the night stark naked. And that kind of went away. They didn’t do anything about that complaint. And it was just one kind of thing that he was able to get after another that most – obviously most inmates would never be able to get.
DAVIES: And then during the day, he could go to this office that he had rented. And he would have complete privacy there – right? – and receive visitors. Do we know anything about what kind of visitors he had?
BROWN: Well, there were a number of young women that came in and out of there. I did track down one. And he had a security detail. It was a private security detail of Palm Beach sheriffs who were paid pretty well to do this, you know, overtime. And they were instructed to just sit outside, you know, his office and not ask any questions, sign people in and out. And, you know, one of them that I interviewed, I said to them, well, didn’t you check on him to see if he was doing anything, you know, nefarious or anything, especially with young women going in there? Is he having sex with them? And they said, no, that wasn’t our job.
DAVIES: So after all this work, all this investigation, all this writing and videography, in November of ’18, it’s time for you to run this three-part story in the Miami Herald. And I know from working on long stories when I was a reporter, you kind of lose perspective on whether anybody’s going to care. And you tell this great story of when it is finally there in the paper up on the website, you had a kind of an electronic board that would measure web hits on stories in the paper and how it was comparing to other stuff. You want to share this with us?
BROWN: Well, you know, I started that day very, very early in the morning with, you know, bringing bagels in. We had prepared for this day for quite a while. We had a social media team in place. We had people that were going to sort of pull all these levers to get it where it needed to go on the internet. And, you know, I even had tweets ready. I didn’t have many followers back then, you know, so it didn’t take me very long to tweet it out because I had – I don’t know – you know, 20 followers or something like that.
And so I finished it up thinking, that’s the end of it because we had a story that was at the top of the board about a woman who had farted in a gas station and somebody said something off-color to her, and she pulled out a knife on them. So the headline was “Woman Farts In Gas Station, Pulls Out Knife” or something along those lines. And it was getting just, you know, thousands and thousands of hits. And I thought, you know, mine’s at the bottom, you know? And I’m thinking, OK, that’s the end of it. I’m never going to beat the fart story. And I sort of – packing up thinking, OK, I’m going home to rest.
And sure enough, it just starts soaring all the way to the top. And by that time, you know, it was later in the morning. People were coming into the newsroom. They’re looking at the board. And I’m sort of ready to, you know, leave. And somebody points out to me, look, you finally beat the fart story. And it was at the top, and everybody burst out in applause in the newsroom. And yeah. And next thing I know, I was just getting all these phone calls and emails, and it just kind of exploded.
DAVIES: There was reaction in Congress, right? I mean, people wanted answers about this. What did it feel like to you to see this kind of impact?
BROWN: I just felt so – my first thought actually was Joe Recarey, the lead detective, because, you know, he was gone, and he – you know, he shared so many things with me. And he was such a genuine person. I – he always wanted justice for these girls, and my first thought was, I wish Joe had been there to see that – you know, especially after Congress started having calls for an investigation. And, you know, so I thought of him. And then, you know, Mike Ryder, the police chief, called me, I think, immediately. And he had read the story, and he said, you know, that he was really happy, that it was a story that he had wanted to be told for a very, very long time.
So, you know, it was heartening to see that there was some action being taken. But, you know, as the days and the months rolled by, I sort of felt like – and so much was going on with the Trump administration at this time. It was, you know, under investigation for Russian interference and, you know, all that. And I thought that it was slowly kind of getting buried again, and I just kept writing more stories. I just kept writing and writing and writing another story, another story because I just wanted to keep it out there so that people wouldn’t forget about it.
DAVIES: Of course, Alex Acosta, the labor secretary who had been the federal prosecutor who supervised the lenient plea agreement, resigned after the controversy over this. You didn’t know it, I guess, but there was a federal investigation underway. Did you suspect that this would lead to a renewal of a criminal investigation of Epstein?
BROWN: You know, I heard a rumor that there was a federal investigation, but I couldn’t confirm it. And I did suspect it, and I put out a lot of feelers to sources that I had. But like I said, I just couldn’t confirm it. And when it finally happened, I was pretty shocked. I think part of me just felt, like, that Jeffrey Epstein was so powerful and that the case was so long ago. And there were so many ways that federal authorities had excuse this for so long that I was skeptical that they would ever reopen this case, quite frankly. So I was very surprised.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We’re going to take another break here. We’re speaking with Julie K. Brown. She is a reporter from the Miami Herald. Her new book is “Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.” We’ll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown. It was her investigation into the sex trafficking crimes of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein that compelled federal authorities to reopen his case, which had ended with a lenient plea deal in 2008. She tells the story of her investigation and his case in a new book called “Perversion Of Justice.”
There is still ongoing civil litigation over this, and there are criminal charges, including against Ghislaine Maxwell, his former girlfriend, longtime associate. She was arrested in New Hampshire – right? – I think, where she’d been kind of laying low. What is she charged with?
BROWN: Well, she’s charged with sex trafficking. Now, remember; she wasn’t – at least that we know of, she wasn’t part of the original case in Palm Beach. So the prosecutors in New York believe that they are able to prosecute her based on the fact that she never was named in that original deal and that she was, they allege, very much a part of his operation. You know, Jeffrey Epstein didn’t do this all on his own. He had a whole ecosystem of people who helped him. And, you know, she is accused of being one of those at the center of this because she was this motherly, nurturing figure that these girls encountered who they felt they could trust, you know? She used that to try – you know, according to the indictment against her, to try to get more girls for Epstein, essentially.
DAVIES: There are criminal charges against another figure, Jean-Luc Brunel, who is involved in, if I have this right, a modeling agency that Epstein financed. Is this right?
BROWN: That’s correct. We saw the – you know, I interviewed the bookkeeper for that company. And we – she also was interviewed by the lawyers involved in some of the civil litigation. And she admitted that, you know, Jean-Luc and that Epstein worked together with this modeling company. It was a vehicle for them to bring underage girls from overseas into the United States ostensibly, they said, for modeling reasons. But, you know, the bookkeeper said that they sent these girls out on, quote-unquote, “assignments” where they would be abused, or they would be said, look; if you want to get paid for this assignment, you have to agree to have sex with these people. So, yeah, Jean-Luc was finally arrested. He had been also accused before. There were other people who had looked into his modeling business because he had sort of a checkered reputation in that business.
DAVIES: All right, so those two criminal cases are still pending. You know, Jeffrey Epstein died August 2019 in his jail cell, and it was ruled a suicide. You have a chapter on this. The title of the chapter is Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself. What do you think? What’s your take on this?
BROWN: You know, look. You know, there are just too many odd things surrounding his death. And part of the problem, I think, is that authorities haven’t been transparent about what they know and what they don’t know. We haven’t seen, you know, the autopsy. We do know from his brother, who has himself said that he didn’t believe that Jeffrey committed suicide, that, you know, that there were strange aspects to how he was found.
It was odd that, for example, he was on a suicide watch when this happened. They put him back in his cell. And there’s no video footage. There – you now have one guard that allegedly was asleep at the wheel, but you have two, which is highly unusual. I covered prison deaths for a very long time. And, you know, you hear of guards falling asleep and things happening, but you rarely hear about two guards falling asleep at the same time or being distracted at the same time.
DAVIES: Who would have the motive to kill him in the jail?
BROWN: Well, you know, there’s a lot of people that would have. I mean, we don’t even really know the scope of his connections and what he had on people. I mean, we know that he pretty much had a lot of information that could implicate people, not only possibly on sex trafficking aspects, but, you know, he essentially was a money manager who helped some of our richest people in the world hide their money. So he also knew, you know, how people got their money and where they had it hiding. And there was certainly a lot of people that had a motive to kill him. I tend to think that it’s possible he might have just had somebody help him. It might have been an assisted suicide, for example. So I think the bottom line is this is still not really determined. And I think we need to look into it more. I think it needs to be investigated more thoroughly,
DAVIES: How did the women who were Epstein’s victims react to the news that he had died in prison?
BROWN: They were crying. You know, they had felt finally that they were going to have their day in court and that he was finally going to be held accountable. And it was just another blow, you know, to them to think that he had sort of gotten away with it again – in their minds, anyway. It was very sad to hear. One of the victims, I couldn’t reach her, so I called her mother. And her mother said right away out of her mouth, you know, they killed them. You know, some victims, they really believe that this was a conspiracy and that he wasn’t – he didn’t commit suicide at all, that he was, you know, that he was killed because of what he knew.
DAVIES: There have been a lot of stories about Jeffrey Epstein and very prominent, well-known men who, you know, had sex with underage girls at Jeffrey Epstein’s arrangement or behest. In your reporting, did you find out anything new or definitive about any of those disputed allegations?
BROWN: I did and I didn’t. I mean, I didn’t find anything that necessarily corroborated some of these stories that have been out there about other men that were involved. But in the aftermath of all this, his estate set up a fund for victims to claim compensation. And I do know from talking to a number of the lawyers who represent these women that there are women that came forward to corroborate or at least confirm that they were trafficked by Epstein to some very powerful people. It’s just that these women don’t want to go public. You know, they’re afraid that their lives are going to be, you know, turned upside down by some of these powerful men.
DAVIES: Julie K. Brown, you are still a working journalist. Are you ever going to get off the Epstein beat?
BROWN: You know, there’s a lot of journalists on this story now that are working really hard. I’m only one piece of the team, you know, even at the Herald now that’s working on this story. And I’m perfectly happy with other people digging into it because there’s a lot to do. I could have jumped down a million rabbit holes with this story because of all the information I was getting. I couldn’t possibly do it all. And I’m really, actually, happy that other journalists are working on it now. And I’m looking forward to going on to the next story, quite frankly, another story that maybe hasn’t been given enough attention.
DAVIES: Well, Julie K. Brown, congratulations on the series. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
BROWN: Thank you.
DAVIES: Julie K. Brown is an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. Her book is “A Perversion Of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.” On tomorrow’s show, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson talks about directing the new film “Summer Of Soul” documenting the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. It features performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson and others and reflects on the cultural and political changes of the time. We’ll also talk about some big changes in Questlove’s life. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.